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Ælfgifulocked

(fl. 956–966)
  • Pauline Stafford

Ælfgifu (fl. 956–966), consort of King Eadwig, was possibly a descendant of Ealdorman Æthelfrith of Mercia (fl. c.900) and of his wife, Æthelgyth, who may have been niece of Ealhswith, wife of King Alfred, and thus of Mercian royal blood. She was certainly a blood relative of King Eadwig (d. 959), from whom she was separated in 958 because they were too closely related.

This enigmatic woman achieved notoriety through the portrayals of her in the late tenth-century lives of saints Dunstan and Oswald. From the former comes the famous story of Eadwig deserting his coronation feast in 956 to disport himself with Ælfgifu and her mother, before being forcibly returned to his royal duties by Dunstan, an action which earned the bishop Ælfgifu's hatred. Subsequent lives develop her evil reputation, labelling her as a Jezebel for her opposition to Dunstan and her malign influence over the king. These stories may give some indication of her importance, but little of her biography. They form part of a posthumous vilification of Eadwig's reign and a sanctification of the two bishops through a portrayal of them as wronged prophets facing a latter-day Jezebel. The mid-tenth-century context of Ælfgifu was both more political and less colourful.

Eadwig's marriage to Ælfgifu, at an unknown date, was of considerable importance in his manoeuvring for advantage in the succession dispute after 955; if she were a woman of royal Mercian descent it may have been critically important in his attempts to establish himself there. It seems to have been her maternal ancestry which was particularly significant; her mother is associated with her in the stories and in the only surviving contemporary documents which mention Ælfgifu. In the factions which formed before and after 955, Ælfgifu and her mother found themselves opposed to Dunstan, Archbishop Oda, and the dowager queen, Eadgifu, widow of Edward the Elder. Dunstan was exiled, but Oda was the man who separated the king and his wife in 958 as the balance began to shift decisively against Eadwig after Edgar was accepted as king of Mercia; the separation should be seen as a part of these shifts. It is another measure of Ælfgifu's significance that she was apparently exiled. If her association with Æthelfrith's family is correct, she was related to Ealdorman Æthelstan Half-King and his sons, who played key roles in the unfolding of events in these years. The marriage does not seem to have held this family to Eadwig's allegiance, a warning against overemphasizing the success of marriage alliances in overriding other interests, against seeing families as monolithic interest groups, and about the need to read faction carefully. The importance of her family led to Ælfgifu's prominence; it did not necessarily protect her in the changing circumstances of the 950s.

In the longer term it may have ensured Ælfgifu some sort of survival. By the mid-960s she was back in England and sufficiently restored in fortune to be receiving charters from King Edgar; she is also presumed to have made a will (AS chart., S 1484). Her new situation is as enigmatic as her origins. It is unclear whether Edgar was granting her land, restoring her fortunes in a gesture of conciliation, or reluctantly accepting the reinstatement of a woman of important connections. After his third marriage, c.965, to Ælfthryth, Edgar seems to have taken a number of steps to organize the land holding of the female members of his family, and perhaps to assert family unity. Any reconciliation which occurred should perhaps be seen in this context. Ælfgifu seems to have paid a heavy price for reinstatement: most of her land was given to the king and royal family and her heriot, or death duty, recorded in her presumed will, is the largest in any surviving tenth-century document. It is difficult to be certain whether she was restoring old West Saxon dower land to the royal family, or whether the lands she left the king, queen, and prince were her own. If the latter, then her marriage to Eadwig was responsible for the crown's acquisition of a sizeable proportion of its important lands to the north of the Thames valley.

Among the lands Ælfgifu left was Wing, in Buckinghamshire, and the substantial remodelling of the chancel of the surviving church there should possibly be associated with her local residence in dowagerhood, though she arranged for burial in Winchester near her royal husband. The last mention of Ælfgifu is in the New Minster charter of 966. The problems in the reconstruction of her biography are a warning of how far the winners of Edgar's reign rewrote the history of the mid-tenth century and of how much of its politics, particularly its family politics, are lost.

Sources

  • W. Stubbs, ed., Memorials of St Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, Rolls Series, 63 (1874)
  • C. Hart, The Danelaw (1992), 455–65, 569–604
  • N. Brooks, ‘Arms, status, and warfare in late Saxon England’, Ethelred the Unready: papers from the millenary conference [Oxford 1978], ed. D. Hill (1978), 81–103
  • H. M. Taylor and J. Taylor, Anglo-Saxon architecture, 2 (1965)
  • M. A. Meyer, ‘The queen's “demesne” in later Anglo-Saxon England’, The culture of Christendom (1993), 75–113
  • P. Stafford, Unification and conquest (1989)
  • P. Stafford, ‘The portrayal of royal women in England, mid-tenth to mid-twelfth centuries’, Medieval queenship, ed. J. C. Parsons, new edn (1994), 143–67
  • D. Whitelock, ed. and trans., Anglo-Saxon wills (1930)
  • AS chart., S 745, 1484
  • charter, New Minster (966)
P. H. Sawyer, , Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks (1968)